Politics & Policy

Comey: How We Got Here

Comey testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, May 3, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
He wasn’t perfect, but Hillary, Abedin, Weiner, et al. were worse.

Comey had to sort out partisan messes that better judgment would have avoided.

President Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey was not merely legal but politically plausible, in part because Comey had so few allies. Very few political figures looked at his decisions in the past year and concluded publicly that he had made the right calls. The director had so few allies because he kept making decisions that irked and in some cases outraged political factions on all sides. Comey kept making those decisions because our national politics kept requiring the nation’s chief criminal investigator to step in. The usual guardrails of common sense and good judgment have been absent at the highest levels in our politics in recent years.

Begin with Comey’s unprecedented press conference on July 5, in which he announced that the FBI would not recommend charges against Hillary Clinton. Why did Comey think he had to make that extraordinary public statement?

Start with Hillary Clinton’s decision to use a private e-mail server that wasn’t up to government specifications for security. Then look to the rest of the Obama administration, which regularly exchanged e-mails with Hillary on that insecure server, including e-mails that included classified information. Many Obama officials knew that Clinton wasn’t using a “state.gov” address, but, to our knowledge, not a single person in the administration ever objected. In 2010, two State Department information-technology staffers raised concerns that her system might not properly preserve records, but their boss, the director of information resource management, insisted that Clinton’s system had been approved by State Department lawyers. It had not. In addition, that director instructed the staff to “never speak of the Secretary’s personal email system again.”

When Clinton’s private e-mail server came to light, very few people in the Democratic party said, ‘This is a major problem suggesting bad judgment, and maybe she isn’t the best choice to be our party’s nominee because of this.” Very few Democrats even wanted to investigate it. Bernie Sanders declared that Americans were “sick and tired” of hearing about it.

Then Attorney General Loretta Lynch made her decision to meet former president Bill Clinton on his private plane, just five days before Hillary Clinton was to be interviewed by the FBI. Lynch casually disregarded any concerns that the tarmac meeting would suggest she had a conflict of interest. Comey specifically cited Lynch’s decision to meet with Clinton while his wife was under investigation as a sign that the Department of Justice “cannot by itself credibly end this.”

Thus, Clinton’s e-mail server had to be investigated by the FBI, and unsurprisingly, the FBI investigators found plenty of obvious instances in which Clinton and her staff had mishandled classified information — if not outright lied to them, giving answers that strained credulity or were implausible. During the interview with the FBI, Clinton said she could “not recall” more than three dozen times. One portion of the report notes that Clinton could not remember whether or not she had received security briefings on how to handle classified info — this, despite the fact that she had previously signed official documents declaring that she had received proper briefings.

This put Comey in an impossible situation. If he had recommended an indictment of Hillary Clinton three weeks before the Democratic convention, the entire Democratic party would probably have erupted in outrage and accused him of attempting to destroy the candidacy of the first female nominee of a major party in American history. President Obama would have come under intense pressure to fire Comey for politicizing the FBI. In that scenario, if Obama failed to fire Comey, Republicans would have accused him of letting Clinton skate.

So Comey attempted to split the baby. He criticized Clinton for being “extremely careless” with classified information but insisted that she hadn’t met the criteria for criminal motive, a motive that is not required in the statute. Intentionally or not, Comey let the voters decide whether Clinton’s actions were disqualifying.

At any point, Clinton could have parted ways with Abedin. Abedin could have parted ways with Weiner or turned over her husband’s computer to the FBI months earlier.

Then, in October, while investigating allegations that former representative Anthony Weiner had sent lewd messages to underage girls, the FBI “learned of the existence of e-mails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation [of Hillary Clinton]” forwarded from longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin to Weiner, her husband. Once again, Comey faced two bad options. If he revealed that the FBI was reopening the investigation and examining these previously unknown e-mails, he would be accused of torpedoing the Democratic nominee. But if he were to keep mum, he would be accused of hiding from voters and Congress the key fact that the Democratic nominee was the subject of a criminal investigation.

Keep in mind, at any point, Hillary Clinton could have parted ways with Abedin. Abedin could have parted ways with Weiner after his infamous 2011 sexting scandal or after it was discovered that Weiner was continuing his sexting habit in 2013. Abedin could have turned over her husband’s computer months earlier or told the FBI that his computer held Clinton e-mails. Weiner could have ceased the gross behavior that destroyed his political career. Had any of these figures made different decisions, Comey would not have been in that difficult position in late October.

For all the blame put on Comey about the election result, two days before the election, he announced that the FBI had reviewed the newly uncovered e-mails, and he and the FBI stood by their earlier decision to not recommend prosecution. Yes, 46 million Americans voted early last year, but another 94 million voted on Election Day. Comey shouldn’t feel “mildly nauseous” — he didn’t actually decide the election.

The fact that he made decisions that infuriated both Republicans and Democrats undermines the accusation that he’s a partisan hack in either direction.

Then the FBI began and is still continuing an investigation of any connections the Trump campaign might have had to Russia, and any related skullduggery that violated U.S. laws in the 2016 elections. At any time in 2016, any one of Trump’s aides could have pointed out that the campaign’s primary national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, managed a consulting firm with foreign clients. Flynn made the decision to appear on the Russian-funded RT network as an analyst and to collect a $45,386 fee to speak at an RT event in Moscow in December 2015. Flynn made the decision to sit at Vladimir Putin’s table at that event. Either President Trump didn’t know about any of this, or he knew and didn’t care. He and the advisers around the GOP nominee and president-elect could have made different, better decisions that might have given the FBI less reason to investigate.

As an FBI director, James Comey wasn’t perfect. But there was usually an understandable reason for every decision he made. The fact that he made decisions that infuriated both Republicans and Democrats undermines the accusation that he’s a partisan hack in either direction. In the past year, he’s been repeatedly called in to play referee for partisan fights that should have been addressed in forums other than law enforcement.

Keeping the FBI out of national politics requires a wiser, more prudent, and more ethical group of political leaders.


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